Small Business

Government Doesn't Have to Be a Tough Customer

How Alexander Levy sold the Ontario government on his app idea, making the deal of his entrepreneurial career (so far)

Written by Deborah Aarts

The most rewarding moment of Alexander Levy’s entrepreneurial life so far—mind you, he’s only 26—happened in July, when his Toronto-based company, MyVoice Inc., won long-sought approval from Ontario’s Ministry of Health for its TalkRocket Go app. Through the Assistive Devices Program (ADP), the province will cover 75% of the user cost of MyVoice’s communication aid—which vocalizes words for those unable to speak—as well as an accompanying mobile device. This gives the 2.5-year-old company a guaranteed income stream and sets an important precedent for future provincial deals. Levy explains to PROFIT how he aims to capitalize on the win.

Q What does this agreement mean for you?

A It’s a really big deal. Until now, we’ve been growing our end-user community on a customer-by-customer basis, selling to those who could afford to pay [for the $100 app and a mobile device]. This approval will make the app affordable to a much larger group of users. And it’s not block funding, where the government agrees to buy 100 or something; they’ll pay for it for any and all who qualify.

Q How long did you have to court the Ministry of Health to secure this deal?

A We started working on it the week the company started, in February 2011. It’s always been a significant goal.

Q How did you, as such a young company, navigate the complex bureaucracy and sale cycle for which government is notorious?

A As with a lot of government programs, there was no public documention on how to get involved in the Assistive Devices Program. There are 27 registered ADP clinics across Ontario that evaluate new products that help people with disabilities. We launched an education campaign to make sure they knew about our products. We visited the clinics, showed them how the app worked and shared stories from our early adopters. What was really cool is that many clinic clients were already paying out of pocket to use our app. So, they were lobbying for funding, which helped.

Eventually, the ministry put it through evaluations, and sent it to independent clinicians for analysis. They forwarded it on with recommendations for approval. People often think that procurement in large organizations is about relationships and personal familiarity between seller and buyer. In this case, the deal really was based on the product’s merits. It was pleasantly meritocratic. And, because we kept on top of it, the agreement marched through the process as quickly as it could have.

Q Still, it took more than two years. How did you keep your staff motivated?

A When you go a long time without any- thing to propel the team forward, they can fall into the trap of “Why are we doing this?” So, every Monday, we’d have a morning meeting at which everyone would report on not only their work but also some user or family for whom TalkRocket had made a difference. People who do charity drives consistently find that they’re much more successful when they say “Your money will help this one child in this one place” than when they say “Your money will help one million children.” Personal- izing why you’re doing what you’re doing is what sticks with people.

Q How did it feel to get the approval?

A It was a little surreal, because we had been working on it for so long. We all went for a few beers, but after an hour or two it was “OK, what’s next? We have Ontario— great. How about the other provinces? How about the U.S.? How about Europe?”

Q You’re a small team. Do you have a plan for scaling up fast if you need to?

A We’ve been very lean to date, but we do a 24-hour turnaround on any request. If we see big adoption in other provinces, we’ll do everything possible to meet that level of service. But, as my accountant father says, “Provide for all losses and expect no gains.” I tend to do some of my planning that way. We’ll assume things will be difficult and then be relieved if they are much better.

Q Are you sleeping better at night now?

A Absolutely. We’ve been putting forward the idea that there’s going to be a dramatic renaissance in assistive technology. Stamps of approval like this say that what we predicted has happened. And that counts for a lot.

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